A Library Journal Best Ebook Romance of 2013
In a brand-new eBook original novella, RITA finalist and USA Today bestselling author Ruthie Knox takes her spectacular Camelot series to new heights with a tale of desire reinvented.
A hotel bar. A sexy stranger. A night of passion. There’s a part of Amber Mazzara that wants those things, wants to have a moment — just one — where life isn’t a complicated tangle of house and husband and kids and careers. Then, after a long, exhausting “vacation” with her family, her husband surprises her with a gift: a few days on the beach . . . alone.
Only she won’t be alone long, because a handsome man just bought her a drink. He’s cool, he’s confident, and he wants to take Amber to bed and keep her there for days. Lucky for them both, he’s her husband. He’s only got a few days in Jamaica to make her wildest desires come true, but if he can pull it off, there’s reason to believe that this fantasy can last a lifetime.
Making It Last is the fourth book in the Camelot Series.
E-book. 136 pp. ISBN: 978-0-345-54929-7. Publication date: July 15, 2013.
What Readers Are Saying about Making It Last…
“A powerful, touching romance that I read in one sitting and that left me wanting more.”
—All About Romance, A- review (a “Desert Isle Keeper”)
“A super-sexy, emotional novella.”
—Happy Ever After blog, USA Today
“A deeply enjoyable story. More than just some excellent sex, it was a thoughtful, intelligent look into a long-time marriage gone stale.”
—Fresh Fiction, highly recommended read
“An honest, real, and candid look at the joys, pitfalls, and challenges of marriage. . . . Ruthie’s finest work to date.“
—Swept Away by Romance
“Knox illuminatingly articulates how a woman’s identity can be lost in the overwhelming roles of mother and wife. . . . [She] is a master at not only what happens after the happily ever after but the complicated feelings that go along with motherhood.”
Read the first chapter!
Amber Mazzara stroked the skinny back of her retching son.
“Get it up,” she said soothingly. “Just get it all up.”
He heaved. Amber kept her gaze on the terra-cotta tiles beneath her boots and tried not to think about how many minutes behind schedule for the airport this episode was going to put them.
If we miss our flight, we’re fucked.
That’s what her husband, Tony, had said under his breath right before she escorted Jacob to this attractive raised bed beyond the overhanging roof of the open-air lobby to empty the contents of his stomach.
Crude, but correct. Jacob’s older brothers, Anthony and Clark, had been at each other’s throats all morning, externalizing their eight- and ten-year-old angst about the fact that their vacation was nearly over in a constant stream of taunts, arguments, and posturing. She’d separated them and exiled them to benches on opposite ends of the lobby, but they were still pulling faces at each other and generally being a pain in the butt. Everyone was dressed for the airplane, not the Jamaican climate, which meant they were all hot, itchy, and overtired.
And because they’d bought the cheapest possible tickets, they had three plane rides to endure. If they were lucky, they’d arrive in Columbus around ten and be home to Camelot by midnight.
If they missed their flight out of Montego Bay and had to travel standby, they were indeed fucked.
Jacob heaved. The cotton of his blue T-shirt rose beneath her palm, soft and hot, clammy with his little-boy perspiration. She followed the pronounced bumps of his spine with one fingertip, willing him a peace she couldn’t feel.
He whimpered. “Sorry, Mom. Clark made me do it. He said—”
“Shh. It’s all right.”
His brothers had taunted him into eating half a chocolate bar. Jacob was milk intolerant; whenever he ate dairy, it came right back up.
She loved her boys, but sometimes they were rotten people.
Jacob spat onto the shiny leaf of a dark green plant with yellow and pink spots. A croton, she thought it was called. They had one at home, but it was only about twelve inches tall. Here in Jamaica, they were everywhere, and they were enormous. This plant was a good four feet in both height and diameter, its spots vibrant beneath the gleaming slide of her youngest son’s saliva.
It was the heat, she supposed. The island environment gave this plant what it needed to grow and thrive.
When she got home to Ohio, she would throw the other one away. It would be kinder than keeping it alive on top of the buffet in the formal dining room, stunted and starving, attracting dust.
Her house seemed to manufacture dust. She dreamed sometimes of moving back into the tiny one-story cottage that Tony had owned when she met him, where they’d lived until after Anthony was born and Tony became fixated on the idea of building something bigger.
That old house was too small for them now—the boys would have to crowd into one bedroom, lined up head-to-toe-to-head-again like sardines—but the daydream captivated her anyway, because when she’d lived in that house with Tony, she’d known who she was. She’d felt centered in herself, grounded by her love for her husband and the daily reality of babies and diapers, sticky fingers and Cheerios and bath time.
Overwhelmed, sure. Exhausted a lot of the time. But full of so much love and pride, she’d thought sometimes she might burst with it.
Jacob heaved and spat again.
“Gross,” Anthony said. Amber looked up. Her middle son had drifted over from the bench where she’d put him. Because what was cooler to an eight-year-old than watching his little brother puke? Nothing.
“Back on the bench.”
He’d been the instigator all morning, bickering with Clark, probably masterminding the plan to get Jacob to eat the chocolate. Whining, tormenting Clark, getting up in Amber’s face with that aggressive energy young boys had in abundance—that stiff-armed, rictus-faced Hey, look-at-me look-at-me look-at-me thing they did that pushed her buttons, hard.
“But I wanted to see if—”
“Get your butt over there right now or there will be consequences.”
“That’s so unfair,” he whined. “I was going to tell Jake I’m sorry.”
“Back. Right now.”
She said it loudly enough that he listened.
So did everyone else within thirty feet.
Amber took a deep breath and turned toward Jacob and the plant, because she didn’t want to see the curious stares of the strangers waiting for the airport shuttle van, the passengers who were checking in, or the casual clusters of people lounging on lobby furniture with cool drinks in hand. Their vacations were still ripe with possibility. Amber’s was over, and the puking was a pretty solid indicator of how it had gone, overall.
She wasn’t in the mood for her family’s sympathetic monitoring, either. Caleb and Ellen had moved on to their private couples-only honeymoon resort, but the rest of the gang all seemed to be on this shuttle—her parents; her aunt Jamila and Jamila’s latest boyfriend; her sister, Katie, with her new guy, Sean. Other relatives milled about. Too many witnesses.
Her mom was huddled in conversation with Jamila, and the sisters kept looking in Amber’s direction, their foreheads identically concerned. Which wouldn’t normally bother her, except the same concern had been aimed in her direction ever since the two of them had found her on the beach after Caleb and Ellen’s wedding ceremony, crumpled against the trunk of a palm tree, unable to stop crying.
Worse yet, Jamila had decided this morning to cut her Jamaican vacation short in favor of following her sister back to Camelot for a few days, saying she and her boyfriend had been having so much fun visiting with Amber’s mother and the rest of the family that they didn’t want it to end. Which meant Amber would likely be seeing more of those concerned foreheads back home.
Her mother was nosy and pushy. Jamila was well-off and indulgent. The two of them together were a force to be reckoned with, and Amber didn’t have the energy to reckon with anyone.
Jacob drew in a deep, sniffly breath and straightened up.
“You think it’s done?” she asked.
He sniffled loudly. “Yeah.”
“Let’s sit here for a minute to be sure.”
She took a seat on the warm tile and patted the ground next to her. Jacob dropped to his butt, legs crossed. He leaned his head against her arm, poking one bony elbow into her stomach. Amber found the bottle of water in her purse and handed it to him. “Rinse out your mouth, okay? It’s bad for your teeth.”
He tipped water into his mouth, swished it around, and spat. Then he swallowed some.
“Not too much,” she warned.
She took the bottle back when he handed it to her, then turned and dumped the remaining contents on the soiled leaves of the plant and the mess Jacob had made in the mulch.
When she looked up, Tony caught her eye from the other side of the lobby, near the shuttle van. He raised his eyebrows.
Amber lifted her hand, fingers spread. Five minutes.
She could count on Tony to keep the shuttle driver’s impatience at bay a little longer. Five minutes of stomach-settling time, and they could all squeeze into the van and spend an hour on bumpy, winding roads getting back to the airport.
If she was lucky, Jacob wouldn’t throw up in her lap, all their flights would be on time, the kids wouldn’t embarrass her on the plane, and she’d have a few minutes between all their demands to read a magazine.
Maybe she could actually sit by Tony and talk to him about something other than the boys. Or the work he needed to do in the coming week. Or how worried he was about his brother Patrick.
Amber scanned the lobby again. Clark had disappeared from his bench. She located him with Tony’s fingers wrapped around his elbow, being frog-marched toward the van. She could see from her husband’s expression that Clark had done something worse than just getting up from the bench. Removal to sit in the van alone must have been the best punishment Tony could come up with.
She repressed a sigh, wishing it hadn’t been such a long day already. It was only nine a.m. That left at least fifteen hours before she got to bed.
“Do you have any snacks?” Jacob asked.
“Not yet, okay?”
“I know. But wait until we get on the shuttle so we can make sure your stomach is settled.”
“What do you have?”
“I want some chips.”
“Maybe you should count your blessings.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re lucky not to be in trouble right now, and you’ll eat what I give you.”
Jacob scooted closer, wrapping his hands around her bicep, forming his body to her side. Seeking protection against the snappy edge to her voice.
She petted his hair, feeling guilty on top of sweaty, grouchy, and doomed.
“Mom, can I go sit in the van?” Anthony asked.
“Why not?” he whined.
Because you’ll harass your brother.
“Because I said so.”
“I hate you.”
“You just lost a day of screen privileges.”
“What? No way! You didn’t give me a warning first!”
“I don’t have to warn you not to tell me you hate me. Telling me you hate me is an automatic loss of a day.”
No TV, no iPod Touch, no DS. He’d be at loose ends, which meant she’d suffer as much as he did.
“That sucks,” he said.
It did. But she wasn’t about to raise three monsters.
“For saying suck.”
Anthony’s ears and neck flushed bright red. He stood up, hands bunched into fists, and bellowed, “Dad!”
Tony looked over, in the middle of helping the shuttle driver wrestle their luggage into the van. “What?”
“Mom just took away two days of screen time for nothing!”
“It’s between you and your mom. I don’t overrule.”
Tony handed the last suitcase to the driver. Amber could see Clark through the open door, kicking the back of the seat in front of him. Seething. He probably wouldn’t speak again for hours, if not days. Her eldest son knew how to hold a grudge.
Off to one side, her father was talking to Aunt Jamila’s boyfriend, and Katie leaned against a column with her hands tucked behind her butt, smiling up at her new boyfriend like love was the answer to everything.
Amber looked away.
Her mom and Jamila broke apart. Mom went over to the bench to talk to Anthony. Jamila headed for the van, where she pulled Tony away from the luggage to talk.
“Okay!” the van’s driver called. “Let’s get all the people onto the shuttle for the airport now. Everyone taking the shuttle to the airport, please bring your luggage to me!”
She liked the musical sound of his accent. The way he said “pee-puhl” for people and danced, tongue tapping, over the word shuttle.
She thought she might have liked this place if she’d come at a different time, or in some other, completely different set of circumstances. When Caleb told her back in the fall that he and Ellen were going to get married here, she’d mentally packed herself a suitcase full of new sundresses and beach paperbacks. She’d laid by the fantasy pool on a fantasy lounger in a fantasy bikini, skin shiny with oil, holding Tony’s hand. She’d looked fantastic—the product of months of work at the gym with Marc, sculpting her body back into shape. And Tony had noticed. He’d stared at her. He hadn’t been able to keep his hands off her.
In her fantasy.
Over by the column, Katie smiled, and Sean leaned down and kissed her. It was the kind of kiss that Amber had almost forgotten existed—a long and lingering kiss that wasn’t meant to go anywhere in particular. A kiss like breathing, like saying I love you, I want you, I need you with every shared breath.
It kept going. Her chest got tight and achy. Her eyes hurt in that tired, watery way, like she’d been staring at the roadway of her life through the high beams for too long, and she just wanted to close them. She wanted to rest.
Tony kissed her before bed and when he left for work—quick and perfunctory.
They kissed when they were going to have sex.
They didn’t kiss out in the open, for no reason but the pleasure of it.
You’ll lose that, she thought.
And then she hated herself for being such a bitter old hag.
Hated that the thought made her want to cry even more, and that there wasn’t any place or any time for her to cry. Not for hours and hours.
She hated that she’d become the kind of woman who looked forward to the next time she could be alone to cry.
In the last few months, Amber had felt herself slipping off course—moving in a misshapen orbit that pushed her farther and farther away from the life she wanted to live. When she tried to figure out the when and the why of it, she couldn’t put her finger on any one thing that had changed. It was more like a hundred little asteroids had come along and knocked her out of alignment. Her dad’s stroke over a year ago. Tony’s mom dying a few months later, and Patrick tucking himself into a tight downward spiral that had culminated in his decision to quit working for Mazzara Construction.
Longer ago, the housing bubble popping with a wet splat. Tony starting to work more hours for less money. Then more hours. More.
Jacob starting full-day school, leaving Amber alone in an empty house for the first time in a decade, and her realization that she was supposed to feel elated, but really what she felt was alone.
She’d lost whatever sun she’d once orbited around, and without it—without that feeling of knowing herself, of being known—there was a part of her that never warmed. A part of her that was always shivering and cold, right on the verge of tears, and loud in its misery. Loud. So that the real work of her days, even as she took the kids to play dates and bought milk and gassed up the car, became keeping it quiet. Shushing it sternly, yelling at it if she had to, because if she didn’t keep it in check, she ended up crying in the kitchen in the middle of the day with no one around but the dog to notice, and that wouldn’t do.
It wouldn’t do at all.
“Do you have any crackers?” Jacob asked.
“Just the ones with peanut butter.”
“Do those have milk in them?”
“Yeah. But I think I have one of those Rice Krispie bars in my purse, too. If you can keep down the pretzels, I’ll give it to you at the airport.”
Jacob perked up. “I thought it was for Ant.”
“Ant just lost it.”
Though it looked like Anthony was getting a consolation prize. Over at his bench, her mother had produced a red bag from her purse full of some kind of candy he immediately tore into. They probably had the dye in them that made him absolutely apeshit. He shoved several in his mouth, and her mom started steering him toward the van.
“You ready to try this, bub?” Amber asked Jacob.
She stood up. When he held out his arms, she lifted him to her hip, even though he was too big for it. Six years old—people gave them funny looks sometimes. But he was her baby. Her last baby. When he stopped wanting her to carry him, no one ever would again.
They walked across the lobby. Jacob rested his head against her neck, and a rogue tear got away from her. It worked its way down her cheek to her neck before she could free a hand to wipe it away. When she’d managed to take another deep breath and get herself under control, she looked up to see Tony watching her.
Not looking at her impatiently, or looking through her or past her—really looking at her.
She stopped. Another tear fell, and she brushed it away.
There was something about the way his mouth was set. Something in his eyes, like anguish. Like longing.
She couldn’t understand what it meant. She was right here.
He closed the space between them and took Jacob by the armpits, hoisting him into his arms.
“You okay now, buddy?” Tony asked.
“Yeah, but I want Mom,” Jacob said.
“I know. We’re just getting in the van, though. Give Mom a minute, okay?”
Jacob made a faint noise of protest, but Tony was already bundling him through the door, and Amber was left alone in the middle of the bustle. She could hear the ocean. The driver talking as he loaded in Sean and Katie’s bags. Her kids’ voices inside the van and the low, familiar register of Tony soothing Jacob.
A breeze blew through the open lobby, cooling the back of her neck and leaving her feeling naked and isolated.
She wished Tony hadn’t seen.
There was no excuse for the tears. She hadn’t yet left the gorgeous resort where she’d spent a few days with her healthy, beautiful family. Money had been tight for so long—was tighter than ever right now—that they never would have come if her brother hadn’t been getting married here, and if he hadn’t insisted on paying for the plane tickets.
This trip was the first significant vacation her family had taken together, the first time any of the kids had traveled internationally, visited the ocean. The first time they’d had their father to themselves for five days in she didn’t know how long.
A treat. A luxury that she was grateful for.
Whatever was wrong with her, it was some kind of first-world problem, and she didn’t want to dump it on her husband. He worked so hard—worked as close to constantly as one man could without breaking. The housing market had been in the toilet for longer than anyone had expected, but Tony did everything possible to make up for it. He took jobs all over the state, wherever he could get them, and he never complained.
The work took him away from her, took him away from their kids, but the work was Tony. It was the way he loved them—by doing what needed to be done. Building them a big, beautiful house, carefully planning the details to suit her, making sure there would be enough room as the boys got older.
He was a good person, a great father. She didn’t want to resent him for never finding time for her, because they were partners, and they’d worked out their roles a long time ago.
They both had to pull their part of the load.
It was just that she was afraid to think about what that look on Tony’s face might mean.
Amber approached the van and started to file in behind Sean, who was ducking into the back with Katie. Tony turned around from where he was crouching across the front bench. “Hold on a sec, hon. I’m coming back out.”
“Aren’t we in a hurry?”
“Yeah. But hold on.”
She eased back out, apologizing to her aunt when she bumped into her. Jamila gave her a beautiful smile. “That’s all right. Help me up?”
Amber supported her aunt’s elbow as Jamila lifted her bulk into the van. She was very fat. Amber’s mom was always harping on it, but Jamila carried the weight as though she was supposed to have it. When the sisters stood next to each other, Amber often thought her mother looked starved, rather than Jamila excessive.
After her aunt was settled in the middle bench seat, she fussed with her purse and then said “Here, honey.” She pressed something into Amber’s hand. An envelope. “Put this in your purse for later.”
“Thank you,” Amber said, because Jamila was always pressing things into her hand. When she was a kid, it had been rolled-up five-dollar bills. At her college graduation, it was a card with five hundred dollars in it—an unbelievable sum.
Amber stepped back, tucked the envelope away. Tony followed her. He took her elbow and led her to a spot on the curb.
“We don’ want to be late!” the driver called. His smile appeared strained. Everyone in the van was watching them. Tony steered her so her back was to the vehicle, but she could still feel all those phantom eyeballs, wondering what this was about.
She looked at Tony, wondering the same thing.
Ten years of fatherhood had carved all the lines in his face deeper, and ever since he’d shaved off his hair for a charity fund-raiser he’d been keeping it short—he said because it was more convenient, but she thought mostly because it had grown back much more salt-and-pepper than it used to be.
She liked that salt-and-pepper. All her favorite things about the way Tony looked were the things no one else noticed or cared about. The way his bottom front teeth had been moving slowly out of alignment, one pushing to the front, the other ducking behind. The dimple in his right ear where he’d had it pierced as a teenager.
She’d found a snapshot of him with a diamond stud in that ear at his mother’s house. He looked so young in the picture, so unfinished and unsure, that she’d asked her mother-in-law if she could take it home. She’d framed it and put it on top of her dresser, because she loved that boy he’d been once. Long before he met her, when he’d raised hell with his brother Patrick until the horrible day when Patrick struck his daughter with his car and killed her. Tony had been in the backseat. The young, unfinished boy he had been had died that day, too.
Tragedies happened, and people kept going, but they never forgot. Never really got over it. Grief for Nicole still stood between Tony and Patrick, all these years later.
Amber looked at the pink slash of scar tissue through Tony’s eyebrow where Patrick had decked him last year. The last night they’d spoken to each other.
Tony returned her gaze, but he didn’t say anything. It wasn’t like him, and the longer she waited, the farther her stomach sank. Finally, she asked, “What is it?” because she knew, suddenly, that he was about to say something terrible and ill-timed.
He’d met someone else. Someone young and vibrant who had ambitions beyond fitting back into her pre-pregnancy clothes. A woman who read the newspaper and had opinions, topics of conversation other than her children.
The idea made her belligerent—so much so that it must have shown in her eyes, because Tony flinched away from her slightly, taken aback.
I never asked for this to happen to me, she wanted to tell him. I’ve just been trying so hard for so long, I don’t have anything left. Not for you. Not even for me.
I don’t know who I am anymore.
“You can stay,” he said. “If you want to.”
“I want you to stay here a few more days. Take a break.”
“Where is this coming from?”
She turned slightly so she could see the driver. He was standing on the running board, his head popping over the top of the van. Beaming discomfort in their direction.
Tony took her by the shoulder and firmly steered her back around to face him.
“It was Jamila’s idea, but she’s right. This vacation sucked for you. I think—I think a lot of things must suck for you, and I can’t usually do anything about it.” He exhaled and raked his hand over his head. Pushing his fingers through hair he didn’t have anymore. “This time I can. You know how Jamila’s leaving early?”
“Well, she says her reservation is completely paid for. Nonrefundable. Their room’s going empty. You can stay there, eat on the resort’s dime, and we can swing the change fee on your ticket. So why don’t you just take a few days?”
“Without you and the boys?”
He smiled. “It’ll be better without us. You can eat at that restaurant you wanted to go to—the fancy one—without listening to us complain. And get a massage. Take a nap and read your book on the beach.” He squeezed her shoulder.
But she knew. It was because she’d cried, and he’d seen her.
Because she couldn’t keep it together anymore.
“You deserve a break.”
“I’m really okay. Despite any appearances to the contrary.”
“I know. But you wanted this, right? The whole thing with the beach and the sun and the girly umbrella drinks. And you didn’t get it at all.”
She had wanted it. She’d bookmarked the website page about the resort’s family-friendly activities. The Kids’ Club. A second honeymoon, she’d told herself. She and Tony, at least halfway unburdened from their ordinary preoccupation with jobs and children.
Everything he described, she’d thought they would be able to do together.
But Jacob hadn’t wanted to go with the Kids’ Club employees, and Clark and Anthony had both declared themselves too old for the family activities. Tony had thrown his lot in with them. Why are we here, he’d asked, if not to spend time together as a family?
And then she’d killed him.
But not really.
So it had been a long weekend of buffet dinners, and burgers and fries for lunch. A vacation spent watching Tony toss a Nerf football in the pool with the boys, or listening to him chew out some poor underling on his cell phone while she tried to keep the kids entertained by herself.
For Amber, it was just like being at home, except more difficult, with Caleb’s wedding in the middle and the blossoming romance of Katie and Sean on display.
Three sexless, exhausting days that had been the furthest possible thing from a vacation.
And still, she couldn’t accept that she deserved what he was offering.
“But you’ve got work,” she said. “And the flight—I can’t leave you with the boys. Who will pick them up from school? Or do the laundry? And somebody’s got to get the dog from the kennel and take her to obedience training tomorrow, because I already think she’s going to be backsliding, considering the way they spoil her. I think—”
“Your mom and Jamila said they would handle it. I’m sure they can take care of the dog, too.”
“I don’t know, Tony. This kind of spur-of-the-moment stuff . . .”
“Makes you crazy. Yeah, I know. You never say yes to anything like this. I bought you that spa gift certificate, and you left it in the kitchen drawer for four years. So I’m not even going to ask. I’m just telling you, you’re staying here. I’ll change your ticket to Friday and let you know when you have to get on the plane.”
He pulled her toward the back of the van, where he unloaded her suitcase and set it on the curb. Amber watched him. Mute. Stunned.
She wanted to clutch his arm.
Don’t leave me here. I don’t know how to be alone anymore.
I want you to stay with me. I want you to want to stay.
I want everything to be different.
Tony leaned down and kissed her.
It wasn’t a perfunctory kiss or a sex kiss. Not a kiss like Sean and Katie’s, either.
It was a very Tony kiss, forceful and direct and unexpected. Bewildering, the way it pushed heat right down through her, right out here where anyone could see.
It was exactly what she needed.
“Okay,” she said, when she’d caught her breath.
Tony smiled. “We’ll miss you. I’ll explain to the boys. All you need to do is wave as we drive away.”
“It’ll be fine, bun.” For one long second, he cupped her face in his hand and looked in her eyes. For one long second, she felt like she still knew him, and he still knew her.
“Have fun,” he said.
And then he climbed into the van and left her standing there with her suitcase.
No kids. No husband. No family.
Just Paradise, for a few more days.